Mysticism (III): How to Receive

Detachment is a powerful psychological and spiritual process that is discussed in many modern day psychological treatments. Much of this comes from Buddhism’s huge modern influence in Psychology. Surely, there is much to gain from an understanding of detachment.

Detachment and receiving are the subject of this entry, which continues a series I started a few weeks ago on Christian mysticism, based on Frederick Bauerschmidt’s book, “Why the Mystics Matter Now.” The chapter begins with a passage from Eckhart’s “Counsels on Discernment:”

“A man ought not to have a God who is just the product of his thought, nor should he be satisfied with that, because if the thought vanished, God too would vanish. But one ought to have a God who is present, a God who is far above the notions of men and of all created things. That God does not vanish, if a man does not willfully turn away from him.”

Bauerschmidt reflects more on this:

“We must not simply detach ourselves from excessive concern for worldly things, nor from selfish desires, but we must even detach ourselves from the god we construct. This is the meaning of Eckhart’s puzzling statement, ‘I pray to God that he may make me free of ‘God.'”

C. S. Lewis writes something very similar in his book, “The Screwtape Letters.” Writing on the behalf of a senior demon instructing his protege on how to win souls, Lewis writes:

“. . . turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling.”

The central idea here then seems to be that we often may get in the way of a real relationship with God by deluding ourselves. Instead of connecting with God, we connect with a higher part of ourselves, and believe the two are the same. In this way, many people are trapped in an illusion of self-sufficiency. There many be many long-term consequences of this kind of self-preoccupation, including internal rumination and a decreased ability to sacrifice for the benefit of others, as often is required in close relationships and families. I certainly sometimes feel that I am caught in this trap. I pray, but I often feel my main motivation is to feel good or to connect with something in myself.

Meister Eckhart’s answer to this vexing problem is to emphasize that humans are not primary, that we are not intended to be our own sources of life. Instead, he believed, humans are intended first to be receivers. If we are humble enough to recognize this, perhaps we can overcome our illusion of self-sufficiency enough to reach out to a real God who really is waiting to meet our deepest needs.

Much of this may require discipline and time. To conclude, as Meister Eckhart stated:

“. . . a man must be penetrated with the divine presence, and be shaped through and through with the shape of the God he loves, and be present in him, so that God’s presence may shine out to him without any effort.”


3 thoughts on “Mysticism (III): How to Receive

  1. Rick Rawson

    I have read your recent posts on mysticism with interest. I’ve been saving up a few comments.1. Many of us have the view that mysticism is somehow mysterious, cultish even. Cardinal Newman concluded that mysticism starts with mist and ends with schism. I suspect that such confusion stems from a lack of understanding of mysticism. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline is not a book about mysticism, but it does promote the use of practices that mystics engaged routinely. Eugene Peterson (who in my view is a modern mystic), commenting on this book, wrote, “…Foster has ‘found’ the spiritual disciplines that the modern world stored away and forgot…” Reading about the lives of Christian mystics makes it clear the we moderns have been impoverished as a result.2. Several years ago, I came to the disappointing conclusion, after having been a Christian for >35 years, that my relationship with God was virtually absent. I was attracted to the mystics because they had what I wanted. I read, and read. Augustine. Julian of Norwich. St. John of the Cross. St. Teresa. Modern evangelicals may disparage the Catholics, but the fact of the matter is that the Catholics (especially the Jesuits and the Carmelites, in my experience) have a great deal to offer evangelicals. Evangelicals talk about “relationship with God” but the Catholics (at least all the ones that I have read) actually have one!3. Evelyn Underhill, in 1911, wrote a definitive work on the nature of mysticism, titled Mysticism: A study in the nature and development of spiritual consciousness. This book is a long and heavy read. It is written like a PhD thesis, but fascinating. She also wrote many other books, including Practical Mysticism. As interesting as these works are, they would not be my starting point.4. The place where I started was St. Ignatius, and his Spiritual Exercises. I doubt that he considered himself a mystic, but the Exercises are showing themselves to be indispensable in stripping away all the religious baggage of my life (think Pilgrim’s Progress here). Gerard Hughes, in God in all Things, makes the bold claim that human beings, having been created in the image of God, turn around and create God in their own image. The Spiritual Exercises are forcing me to face this. It is excruciating, but, over time, I am coming to grips with God as He really is. What is unique about Ignatius is that, although theology is important, his Exercises are not about theology. That’s where evangelicals generally start. The mystics do not seek knowledge for its own sake; they want God! Ignatius is forcing me in that direction. My blog chronicles this process. If I were to advise someone interested in mysticism on where to start, Ignatius would be it, because he begins at the beginning. There’s nothing mysterious about it; it’s a LOT of work.5. Buddhism may well be the origin of detachment in modern psychology, but the Buddhists almost certainly did not discover the idea. Ignatius (and the rest of the mystics) included the concept as a central thesis. In his Spiritual Exercises, the “Principle and Foundation” states, “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. And the other things on the face of the earth are created for man and that they may help him in prosecuting the end for which he is created. From this it follows that man is to use them as much as they help him on to his end, and ought to rid himself of them so far as they hinder him as to it. For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.”(my emphasis) I seriously doubt that Ignatius ever met a Buddhist, yet detachment (he used the word “indifference”) was crucial to him. I have to wonder if “detachment” is a universal law, something like gravity.

  2. Pingback: The Meaning of the Cross | The Quest for a Good Life

  3. Pingback: What It Means to Have a Relationship with Jesus | The Quest for a Good Life

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